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Braddock's Defeat: A Book Review

In British and American history, the Braddock Campaign is perhaps one of the most significant military disasters of all time. Commanded by Major General Edward Braddock, the campaign has been described as a cautionary tale of British pride and poor judgment all of which was epitomized in the leadership of Edward Braddock. However, David L. Preston’s in-depth and balanced assessment in his book, Braddock’s Defeat: The Battle of the Monongahela and the Road to Revolution, revives the reputation of the infamous British General while re-examining the failures of the campaign.


Braddock's Pistol
Braddock's .71 caliber flintlock pistol that was given to George Washington.

Braddock's Defeat: An Overview of the Braddock Campaign


As a brief overview, Braddock's Campaign was the first major British military effort to expel French forces from the western frontier area that the British called the Ohio Country. General Braddock led two regiments under the flag of the British Empire. They arrived in North America in February 1755 and set up their headquarters and staging area in Alexandria, Virginia in March. In fact, the large, sandstone house built by Alexandria merchant and founder, John Carlyle, was the headquarters for Braddock and his staff. The total troop strength swelled in size to nearly 2,400 personnel plus a large logistics train.


The culminating point of the campaign occurred at the Battle of the Monongahela on July 9, 1755. The French and their Indian allies ambushed the British and inflicted 900 casualties on the British side. It was a total disaster and failed to achieve the military objective of forcing the French to abandon Fort Duquesne, which was situated at the forks of the Ohio River at the present-day location of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.


Following the disaster of the Monongahela, it would take three more years for the British to finally launch a successful follow-on campaign. That military operation was under John Forbes. George Washington was also present for the Forbes Expedition and helped avert total disaster that occurred in a friendly fire incident. Nevertheless, the British re-took Fort Duquesne in 1758 and re-named it Fort Pitt after William Pitt the Elder. Hence the name of modern day Pittsburgh.


Was General Braddock so bad?


As Preston explains in the book, the disaster at the Monongahela has led many people to point fingers in different directions. But the blame has mostly fallen on the shoulders of General Braddock and his leadership. Since 1755, there have been caricatures of General Braddock as a bumbling, hardheaded, gluttonous fool. There is no doubt that he had his detractors. Among those who found Braddock to be off putting was John Carlyle. Carlyle wrote that Braddock was an “indolent man” and a “slave to his passions.” Carlyle also expressed displeasure with British treatment when he remarked in a letter that the British treated the American colonists as the “spawn of convicts.”


Home of John Carlyle
The Carlyle House in Alexandria, Virginia

While Carlyle felt bitter about Braddock’s stay in Alexandria, his perspective may have been skewed by the circumstance of having his home turned into a military headquarters. There is no doubt that this would probably make a lot of people feel uncomfortable. Do soldiers really make the most pleasant houseguests? They are not there to be entertained. They are preparing for war.  


Beyond Carlyle’s experience, not everyone felt the same way about Braddock. At the age of 23, George Washington eagerly signed up to be a volunteer aide-de-camp to General Braddock. Washington admired the man and learned from him. Braddock seemed to respect Washington as well. In fact, Washington suffered during the campaign with severe dysentery. However, Braddock promised when the fighting began that he would bring Washington to the front of the column. As Preston explains in the book, this was important because many of the officers and soldiers wanted to be at the head of the column and were eager to achieve the glory and accolades that they perceived would come from a British victory. As it turned out, the head of Braddock’s column was the worst place to be on July 9, 1755.


In terms of Braddock’s leadership, Preston tries to set the record straight. It is easy to think that he was a bad leader. But, Braddock led from the front and put himself at points of friction to direct the outcome of the battle. As a result, Braddock was shot and wounded during the ambush. While he was wounded, he continued to lead his men. He finally succumbed to his injuries and died on July 13. However, he was resilient until the end and commanded his soldiers despite the chaos and confusion on the battlefield.


Another characterization of Braddock is that he was stubborn and did not cultivate alliances with Indian tribes. It is true that Braddock was not able to secure Indian support to the degree that the French had been able to. However, it is untrue that Braddock dismissed the Indians and did not want their support. Preston tries to show a measured view of the man and separate the facts of what happened from the personality attacks that have been levied against him. After all, people frequently look for scapegoats and the British needed a reason to rationalize how such a mighty army could have fallen to a smaller force comprised mostly of Indians. Putting the blame on Braddock and defaming his character has become a way to cope with the defeat.


Was Braddock's Campaign a total failure?


Preston also analyzes the unlikely successes of the campaign. It would have been hard to perceive them at the time. However, with the benefit of historical hindsight, we can now see that the Braddock Campaign opened the door to the western frontier. In effect, it created one of the first highway systems into the heartland of America. The grueling work of Braddock’s army facilitated follow-on westward expansion. In that sense, Braddock’s Campaign laid conditions for future American victories and the growth of America itself.


What can be said about the arduous nature of the campaign? There were significant “human factors” that played into it. The experience of the average soldier must have been beyond imagination for a modern reader. The soldiers were forced to cut through dense woods in a wilderness with wild animals and venomous snakes. They did so with little food, water, and in the heat of the summer. Furthermore, the threat of attack always hung ominously around them. When they were finally ambushed, many of the soldiers were tortured and their bodies were desecrated. It is hard to comprehend the horror of the frontier battlefield. In some cases, soldiers were burned alive and in many cases the soldiers had the tops of their heads cut off in a barbarous war crime known as “scalping.” As a result, when Braddock died, his aides like George Washington had General Braddock's body buried and the wagons driven over it so that it would not be dug up and desecrated.


From a tactical point of view, the British were not prepared for the fighting on the western frontier. On European battlefields, the open terrain and inaccuracy of musket fire is what led European forces to mass their fires by standing in a line. However, this is not the way the fighting worked in the thick foliage of America. As the British tried to organize shoulder to shoulder and mass their fires, they were easy targets. Furthermore, the enemy was dispersed among the trees, so that British concentration of fire power did not deliver the same effect. However, during the battle, the British adapted and soon realized that they needed to both disperse and rush the enemy in the trees. However, it was a lesson that was learned too late.


Future Leaders and the Campaign's Legacy


One of the final interesting points that Preston discusses in the book is how the veterans of the Braddock Campaign served again in the American Revolution. Obviously, George Washington was the most prominent among them. However, there was also Horatio Gates and Charles Lee, who fought for American independence. Another future American general was the frontiersman Daniel Morgan, who worked as a teamster and received 499 lashes after striking a British officer. Benjamin Franklin also helped to secure wagons for General Braddock. As a result, Braddock greatly appreciated Franklin and his colon of Pennsylvania. On the British side, Thomas Gage served again as the military governor of Massachusetts. Thus, the Braddock Campaign forged future leaders on both sides of the Revolutionary War.


Braddock’s Defeat is an important book to understand American history and the significance of the events that led to the American Revolution. Braddock’s Campaign is not widely known, but Preston has done a great job introducing the reader to the subject. Furthermore, he has integrated critical lessons on military tactics, strategy, logistics, and diplomacy. The book paints a clear picture of how the Braddock Campaign was a formative event not only for the future of America but also its most prominent leaders.   


Check out the book here.


Braddock's Defeat
Braddock's Defeat

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